Following with the second article presenting the Tipping point theory, where the “Stickiness factor” was explained, this third article explains the third key success factors to reach a Tipping point: the power of context.

The power of context

Social epidemics are very sensitive to the environment and the circumstances of the times in which they occur. The key idea of the power of context is that people are more than just sensitive to changes in context. And the kinds of contextual changes capable of tipping an epidemic are very different than we might ordinarily suspect.

For instance, Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is an inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will think that no one cares. Soon, more windows are likely to be broken, and the sense of anarchy spreads out from the building to the whole street, and further to the rest of the district, sending a message that anything goes.

The Tipping Point in this epidemic it’s something physical like graffiti. The motivation to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not necessarily coming from a certain kind of person but also from a feature of the environment. The essence of the Power of context is that our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.

Thinking about “How much influence does immediate environment have on the way people behave?”, Philip Zimbardo –from Stanford University- concluded that there are certain times, places and conditions when our inherent predispositions can be swept away, and that there are circumstances where you can take normal people from good schools and happy families and good neighborhoods and powerfully affect their behavior just by changing the immediate details of their situation.

What this study suggests is that the convictions of our heart and our thoughts are eventually less important in guiding our actions than the immediate context of our behavior. Environmental Tipping Points are things that can be changed: we can fix broken windows and clean up graffiti and change the signals that first invite to vandalism or other kind of undesirable behavior.

Judith Harris has convincingly argued that peer influence and community influence are more important than family influence in determining how children behave. Their behavior is powerfully shaped by the environment out of their family, and the features of their immediate social and physical world –the streets they walk down, the people they encounter –play a huge role in shaping who they are and how they act.

More specifically, hereby we analyze the critical role that groups play in social epidemics. Psychologists say that when people are asked to make decisions in a group, they come to very different resolutions than when they are asked the same by themselves. When we’re part of a group, we’re all susceptible to peer pressure and social norms and other kinds of influence that play a critical role in sweeping us up in the beginnings of an epidemic.

The spread of any new and contagious idea also has a lot to do with the skillful use of group power. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something if you discuss it for two hours with your friends. Then it becomes a social experience and an object of conversation. On the other hand, peer pressure is much more powerful than a concept of a boss. People want to live up to what is expected from them. When each person has a group-acknowledged responsibility for particular tasks and facts, greater efficiency is inevitable.

The rule of 150 is an interesting example of the strange and incredible ways in which context affects the course of social epidemics. There is a concept in cognitive psychology called the channel capacity, referring to the amount of space in our brain for specific kinds of information. We have a channel capacity for feelings, and there is also what could be called social channel capacity. So what does correlate with brain size? According British anthropologist Robin Dunbar social group size is what correlates with the size of our brain. If you look at any species of primate the larger their neocortex is, the larger the average size of the groups they live with.

Dunbar’s argument is that brains evolve, they get bigger, in order to handle the complexities of larger social groups. If you belong to a group of five people, then you have to keep track of ten separate relationships: your relationships with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. That’s what it takes to know everyone in the social circle.

Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with brains large enough to handle the complexities of that social arrangement. Keeping things under 150 has proved to be the most efficient and effective way to manage a group of people. When the group gets larger than that, people become strangers to one another. They’re knit together, which is very important if you want to be effective and successful at community life. If you get too large, you don’t have enough things in common, and then you start to become strangers to one another and that close-knit fellowship starts to get lost. Above the 150 Tipping Point, there begin to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice.

If you are interested in further insights about this topic, I strongly recommend you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, where you will also find many case studies that illustrate all the concepts and theories among other interesting content.

Posted by Jordi Pera

Jordi Pera is an economist passionate about tourism, strategy, marketing, sustainability, business modelling and open innovation. He has international experience in marketing, intelligence research, strategy planning, business model innovation and lecturing, having developed most of his career in the tourism industry. Jordi is keen on tackling innovation and strategy challenges that require imagination, entail thoughtful analysis and are to be solved with creative solutions.

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